In late February, I met up with fellow hikers Rat Patrol, his son Tyler, and Fireball for a Buckeye Falls adventure. In case you have forgotten, or perhaps have not had the opportunity to read the hiker-blog about last year’s Buckeye Falls expedition yet (there were 2 of them, one was a solo hike), as a reminder, Rat, Tyler and I climbed the left ‘Buckeye’ ridge to get a view of the ‘big picture’. That was a steep, gnarly climb and descent, especially with the slippery snow, but the view of the falls from that distance was rather incredible. Having already accomplished that, and having not gazed up at the falls from the base in nearly 16 years, I was wanting to go there and experience that perspective.
The water levels in Clarks Creek were high–which is good for waterfall viewing—thanks to all the snow-melt waters and the recent rains. Crossing the creek, however, which you have to do several times to get to Buckeye Falls, was quite challenging when the creek is that swift and deep. ‘Rock-hopping’ was not an option, and so while the others chose to get their boots wet and ford the cold, deep waters, I attempted to at least keep my boots and socks dry by taking them off before wading across, but that was rather time consuming. It really was nice to have warm, dry feet for the 1st mile, or so, but I eventually fell in the creek anyway, and it became pointless after that. It was good while it lasted, but it became painfully obvious that there was no way to get to the base of Buckeye Falls without getting wet when the creek is high. Clarks Creek, by-the-way, was rather scenic in its own right, with whitewater cascading down the valley with a greater velocity than usual–water was flowing out of every hollow.
It took awhile, but we eventually reached the turn off for the falls; the water flowing out of the Buckeye Hollow was more than I ever recall seeing before, forming a small waterfall where the Buckeye tributary joins the Clarks Creek, deep in the Sampson Wilderness. Meanwhile, the ascent up to the base of the falls was rather brutal—very steep with many obstacles to have to maneuver around, but the view of the water shooting off the top of the falls, getting airborne before cascading some estimated 600 feet down the solid rock wall was mind-blowing.
I should caution anyone who should decide to visit these falls (they do get some traffic from now and then) to not attempt to climb them because it is very dangerous, and that would be a very bad place to break a leg, perhaps, if not worse. I have gotten lucky over the years, I suppose, but I have also had several close calls–just about every time I have been up there. The danger is not just from the likelihood of yourself falling and getting injured, but in the wintertime falling ice from the cliff wall could be extremely hazardous, as well. Just being there is dangerous, basically. Even on this year’s expedition, I had a potentially painful near trip and fall on the way back down from the base, so expect some hazard if you should ever go.
To get back to the adventure, the 4 of us eventually congregated on ‘the island’, a small patch of ‘soil’ at the base of the falls between the 2 channels of water, and took awhile to absorb the amazing scenery, while the cold melt-waters of the falls cascaded down beside us. Even though seating was limited on ‘the island’ and comfort was not an option, especially after cooling down and allowing leg muscles to stiffen, we must have sat there for over an hour enjoying the scenery. While we were there, Rat and I toasted ‘Paw Paw’ and ‘O’Keepa’ (friends of ours who had passed in the recent few months) with the Makers Mark he had carried up there without my knowing. It was a surprise and a rare treat, and even made some of the chill from the wind and muscle pain dissipate somewhat. Not only for those reasons did I enjoy the shots of Makers Mark beside Buckeye Falls, but I think Paw Paw and O’keepa would have appreciated that kind of respect.
Rich Mountain Fire Tower…
In mid-February I decided to hike out of Allen Gap in an attempt to get to the Rich Mountain Fire Tower (and back). It was a cool morning, but I stayed quite warm and comfortable in an old sweatshirt, ascending the ‘Buzzard Roost Ridge’. A lot of memories kept popping into my head, beings how this was the trail section I used to maintain for the Carolina Mountain Club (from 2001 to 2007). I could see logs that I had cut and dragged out of the trail, and remembered all the trouble spots which made whacking the weeds difficult. There were also places along the way where I had cut back the laurel limbs and other brush, and tread-repair places that I had dug level that still looked fairly well-groomed considering. There was also the slippery rock incident that dazed me when I fell on it while moving a log out of the trail. It was somewhat amazing, the clarity, remembering all those things as if they had happened only yesterday, even though I hadn’t walked this trail since I ‘retired’ in October of ’07.
There were other memories, as well, some good, some bad; there was no way I could ever forget walking up behind that humongous black bear that time, or the other time I nearly cut into a rattlesnake with my swing-blade while cutting weeds one summer–it had flopped over at my feet and corkscrewed it’s way into a hole beneath some leaves before I even had time to blink. One of the better memories was catching the sunset several times from the top of the ridge on the way back to Allen Gap after working on the trail all day…one of the bad ones was getting stung by bee’s at ‘Deep Gap’…oh yeah, and that gnarly thunderstorm that shook the ground while I walked off the ridge, soaking wet, carrying a metal swing-blade.
I hadn’t intended on thinking about any of that stuff, being more intent on making new memories, instead. I did eventually tear myself from the past somewhat, and began noticing things along the way I hadn’t realized before; I knew that the top of Buzzard Roost Ridge was rocky and had cliffs along the backside down into Deep Gap, but I never realized how far the ridge went out the other way, overlooking Paint Creek. While ascending Spring Mountain, looking over at the ridge from the opposite side of the huge hollow, (the Appalachian Trail does a ‘horseshoe’ through there) I became fascinated with just how gnarly, and rocky that ridge is– there were primordial-looking cliffs and a large bare-rock knob. I mentally chastised myself for not knowing about this rocky phenomenon already, but forgave myself after I justified that the leaves were usually on the trees, and would have been blocking the view, whenever I was working on the trail, and it would have been more difficult to see. Either way, I made a note to myself, and am hoping to go up there (in the wintertime) and walk out that ridge and explore the rocky knobs and cliffs someday.
I suppose a geologist would also find this part of the mountains very intriguing, since there are several different types of interesting rocks; while some of the boulders near the shelter appear to be conglomerates of broken crystalline rocks, re-formed with limestone/sedimentary stone in between to form a natural concrete, the boulders on Buzzard Roost Ridge are quite strange in their formations, broken and streaked with minerals, I think. It is difficult for me to imagine all the geologic processes the mountains have gone through over the last billion years, or so, but I do appreciate them when I see them.
Although I have walked it several times, the trail (south) beyond Spring Mountain Shelter is less familiar to me, but I noticed a definite ‘rollercoaster-like’ trend, along with a few nice views of distant mountains and also some gnarly-looking trees. There was even some snow. I did contemplate turning back around when I reached ‘Hurricane Gap’, 2 miles beyond the shelter, but I was determined to climb the steep mile-long hill to the Rich Mountain Fire Tower and get a panoramic view. After battling some acrophobia, treading lightly up the weather-worn wooden steps of the tower, I acclimated fairly well and enjoyed the panoramic view of the mountains. It was quite a bit colder on top of the tower, but I had carried some warm clothing with me, which I was in the process of putting on when I was surprised by a young woman who had climbed the mountain from the ‘Hot Springs’ (southern) side. Having someone to talk with was nice, and helped to ease the acrophobia somewhat, I think, and it was fun showing her where I live by simply pointing at a distant mountain (Unaka) in the north.
Anyway, it was getting late and I had a long walk back to Allen Gap. I re-filled my water bottle at a spring below the tower and kept a fairly brisk pace in an effort to avoid having to hike in darkness. By the time I had passed by the shelter, however, my hamstring on one leg was rather sore and the knee on the other leg felt like it was sprained. I was having flashbacks of limping out in the darkness after working on the trail when I was the maintainer, almost always bruised and bloody, and even received a nice view of the sunset as I re-ascended Buzzard Roost Ridge. I was too late to get a view of the sunset from the northern side of the ridge (where I remember the best sunsets being) and it began to get dark as I descended down into Allen Gap. I only had to walk in the dark for about 10 minutes, which wasn’t bad considering it was a long, 14 mile walk to the tower and back.
Chigger Ridge Overlook…
On a cool morning in mid-March, Rat Patrol, Fireball and I began our quest for the Overlook on Chigger Ridge. Having seen photos in old books looking over and down on Buckeye Falls from this elusive place, it had been on the list of places to go for quite some time. Starting out on the Longarm Branch Trail, we took a short side-trip to Pine Ridge Falls before climbing the rocky trail beyond Longarm Branch Falls to Bearwallow Gap.
After a lunch break at Bearwallow Gap, we continued on a swampy trail (an old roadbed actually) to the west over the top edge of Longarm Ridge toward Chigger Ridge. The old roadbed dead-ended below the Chigger Ridge and we were left to our own devices and our maps to find the way from there. After climbing the ridge, we accidentally made a wrong turn down a ‘spur’ ridge-top (Rat had another name for it) threading our way through some thick, inflexible laurel hells, thinking that we were on the main ridge. There were signs of bears everywhere. We eventually realized our mistake and climbed back up through the tenacious laurels and bear scat to where we made the wrong turn. After studying the map again, It wasn’t looking very good for us, as it looked like we would have to climb all the way to the top of the mountain, veer to the west some more, and then descend down Chigger Ridge to the knob with the overlook on it. Time and distance were going to be an issue, but while we were climbing the spur ridge, I noticed an animal trace leading off to the right at a fairly level slope that took us directly to the top of Chigger ridge and just below the Overlook. This ‘gap trail’ saved us an unbelievable amount of time and effort, and is the best shortcut I think I have ever found.
After a short climb up a knob on the ridge-line, we found the overlook and received an unbelievable view of Buckeye Falls, Wilson Knob, and the entire butte-end of the Sampson Wilderness (where Rich Mountain and Sampson Mountain join together). Although the sky was cloudless, quite unsuitable for descent photography, we stayed on the overlook enjoying the incredible view longer than we probably should have. Although we took a shortcut down Longarm Ridge on the way back, bypassing Bearwallow Gap, we ended our 12 mile hike walking back to Longarm Branch in the dark anyway.
Rocky Fork Pond Adventure…
In early March, I met up with ‘Fireball’ to hike up to the Pond on Higgins Ridge. I had attempted to find this pond many—perhaps 15 or 20–years ago, only to find a place with massive bulldozer tracks, and an overflow drain sticking up out of the ground where a pond used to be. I suppose it was my bad luck to venture up there looking for the pond at the same time the Forest Service, or whoever was in charge of that project, decided to drain and bulldoze it. Disappointed, and confused, I never went back. However, I was informed that the pond was indeed there now, and ‘Fireball’ had just hiked up there a few weeks earlier with one of the local trail clubs in the snow. Having never actually seen the pond with water in it, it was decided that we would hike up there.
The weather was cool and windy, threatening rain, when we started out in Rocky fork that morning. The creek was flowing quite briskly beside the trail, and the vibrant cascades were altogether appealing. We began our ascent up ‘the high road’ toward Wilson Knob and Frozen Knob, dealing with a sharp, cold wind on the ridge-top, and even some rain. After reaching the gap at the top of the mountain, we veered to the east, skirting below Frozen Knob, toward Higgins Ridge, and then after locating the right trail, descended to the pond. It was impressive, as ponds go, larger than I expected. The low clouds pushed by the cold wind obscured the sheltering ridges and sent ripples across the pond’s surface, giving the place a somewhat magical appearance.
As remote and secluded as the pond is, it was somewhat unexpected to hear people hooting and hollering on the far side; apparently the pond has become a camping/party place for some of the rowdier sort who have found a way to drive their 4-wheelers up from Higgins Creek and Birchfield Camp Creek. We decided to give them their space and ate our lunches in peace on the other side of the pond before returning to our trail back toward Frozen Knob and Rocky Fork. There were many enjoyable views of a cloud encrusted Flint Mountain on the long descent back into the Rocky Fork Valley, including an interesting perspective of the ‘Stonehenge cliffs’ on Whitehouse Mountain.
It was getting rather dark by the time we returned to the car with only a couple minor injuries, mostly just muscle strains and pains, but there was also a good feeling of accomplishment after the somewhat strenuous 12 mile mountain hike.
A couple More Day Hikes…
I did a couple of solo day hikes to briefly mention—the first was a trip to the Wilderness Falls. Having been somewhat disappointed by the diminished water flowing over the falls when Rat Patrol and I took Dave Aldridge (the waterfall guy) up there last autumn, I wanted to return and view them when more water was flowing. The falls are much more impressive in the wet season, and when I was there, ice was clutching the cliff rocks, and it began to snow.
I ventured up Sill Branch on a solo hike as well; the creek was flowing very nicely that day and since it was also very cloudy, the conditions were quite good for playing around with my camera, trying to capture some of the beauty there. Sill Branch is a very attractive creek when the water levels are up, revealing multiple cascades, and the waterfalls (Lower Sill Branch Falls) were inspiring.
Thanks again to the Web-Wizard for continuing to work on, and improve the website; I hope everyone enjoys it as much as I do. Even so, if you have any questions, comments, or just want to say hello, feel free to click on the ‘contact us’ link. Speaking of links, Dave Aldridge (the waterfall guy) has recently started his own website (with a little help from the Web-Wizard) where he plans to display his extensive collection of waterfall photos from around the world. He is an amazing fellow, and I encourage everyone to check out ‘The Old Albatross’, and of course Rat Patrol’s website, as well, ‘RATtreks.com’.